On Thursday, Feb. 20, Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin finished atop the scoring pylon in their respective 150-mile qualifying races at the inaugural nighttime running of the Budweiser Duel At Daytona.
Kenseth, who led a race-high 31 laps in the first qualifying race, was the victor in a three-wide finish at the checkered flag, edging out Kevin Harvick by .022 seconds with Kasey Kahne a close third. It was later announced that Harvick’s No. 4 Budweiser Chevrolet failed post-race inspection nullifying his finish in the race.
“Certainly (the win) felt good,” said Kenseth, who has won a Budweiser Duel two of the last three years. “The last few days haven’t felt great. To get the car in the front today and keep it there, win (the race), it certainly builds confidence in all of us, makes us feel like we can go out and get the job done if everybody does their jobs and we do everything right.”
The first duel also saw rookies Alex Bowman and Cole Whitt racing their way into the Daytona 500. The two drivers are a part of the largest crop of rookie contenders in the sport since 1994.
"My guys pulled together and made it happen. My hat is off to them, Speed Stick GEAR coming onboard, giving us a shot with a sponsor down here. Everything so far has just been pretty amazing," Whitt stated. "To be in the Daytona 500 is something I've dreamed of my whole life. Kind of a hard way to do it. But being out and back in with just a lap or so to go is pretty gnarly. Just thanks to everybody."
Bowman echoed his competitors sentiments.
"I mean, it's huge. I mean, I got the call to come drive a Cup car. I was really excited about that," added Bowman. "To make the Daytona 500, it's huge. It's something I've watched as a kid every year. It just means a lot to me and my family. It was pretty crazy."
With his win in the second Budweiser Duel race of the night Hamlin, who has dominated Budweiser Speedweeks thus far, is on a three race roll starting with the Ford 400 at Homestead and continuing with The Sprint Unlimited last Saturday night. He was followed across the finish line by three-time DAYTONA 500 champion Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch.
“We’re on a roll and once that snowball starts to roll, it’s hard to stop it. Right now we’re just on a heck of a run. The biggest challenge I’ll have is to keep the reigns back for 450 miles,” said Hamlin when asked about what he needs to do to become the first driver to sweep Budweiser Speedweeks which culminates with the DAYTONA 500 on Sunday. “(The 500 is) going to be a much longer race and when you go out there and perform the way we have over these last few races, it’s hard not to just charge out there and show that you’re still on top and still the best right on Lap 1. That will be my challenge within myself – keeping the reigns back and realizing how long it is and try to be as patient as I can.”
As Hamlin prepared to take the checkered flag, defending DAYTONA 500 and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson ran out of fuel, initiating a crash that would collect a handful of drivers and also see Clint Bowyer flip over, land on his wheels and drive away. GEICO driver Casey Mears was credited with a lead lap, 14th place finish that placed him comfortably in the 2014 Daytona 500 starting field. Most importantly, he was left with a clean, undamaged racecar. For the second time in as many days, pain quickly turned to comfort as the racing gods smiled down on Mears and his Germain Racing crew.
“We’ve been fortunate the last two days and it’s nice to have things go our way here. We would’ve definitely been in that mess tonight if I didn’t have the fuel issue, so in retrospect it worked out,” Mears said. “Our GEICO team has worked hard all week and I’m glad they are having some positive things happen. We’re really strong and I’m thankful to all of the Germain guys and the folks at RCR (Richard Childress Racing, Germain’s technical partner) for giving me a fast racecar. We’re looking forward to Sunday.”
Mears and his GEICO team have been strong since they unloaded their #13 GEICO Chevrolet a week ago for the season’s opening practice session. To this point, fortune has favored the team, so both crew and driver excitedly await Sunday’s Daytona 500.
In addition to Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidates Cole Whitt and Alex Bowman, bubble drivers that secured starting spots in “The Great American Race” on Sunday include Landon Cassill, Josh Wise and Brian Scott.
"It's just huge for us. Carsforsale.com jumped onboard to help us out for this weekend. We have a big deal we're really working on, good people that we're talking to, just this positive accomplishment is going to help tremendously," Cassill added. "The team is just so pumped up. I'm really proud of them. Mike Hillman and Joe Falk have put a ton of faith in me, probably too much. I can't appreciate it more."
Josh Wise was also enthusiastic about making the field for the Great American Race.
"Yeah, it's a big burden lifted off, for sure. Sleep has been light this week," Wise stated. "But my car was pretty good. I could kind of hold onto wherever I was."
For all the winners on Thursday, there were also a few losers. Failing to qualify for Sunday’s 56th annual Daytona 500 were Ryan Truex Jr., Michael McDowell, Joe Nemechek, Morgan Shepherd, Eric McClure and Dave Blaney.
Blaney, whose car was destroyed in a pre-race practice on Wednesday night, was a victim of the struggling economy, as his team was without a backup car to make the duel. His fans took to twitter en masse following the accident, making #BackupForBlaney a trending topic for a short period of time. However, all the fan support in the world was not enough for the underfunded team, and they were gone from Daytona before Thursday morning.
Over the next few days, this column will strive to provide full coverage of the events leading up to the Great American Race on Sunday, including a possible interview with the head of the CJ Mears Gang himself, Casey Mears, as well as other members of the NASCAR garage.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season opens with the Daytona 500 in Daytona Beach, Fla., on Feb. 23. The race will be televised live on FOX at 1 p.m. ET. Tickets for NASCAR’s biggest, richest and most prestigious race start at $65 and are available online or by calling 1-800-PITSHOP.
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